Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two

Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two

4.2 40
by Joseph Bruchac
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

Throughout World War II, in the conflict fought against Japan, Navajo code talkers were a crucial part of the U.S. effort, sending messages back and forth in an unbreakable code that used their native language. They braved some of the heaviest fighting of the war, and with their code, they saved countless American lives. Yet their story remained classified for more

See more details below

Overview

Throughout World War II, in the conflict fought against Japan, Navajo code talkers were a crucial part of the U.S. effort, sending messages back and forth in an unbreakable code that used their native language. They braved some of the heaviest fighting of the war, and with their code, they saved countless American lives. Yet their story remained classified for more than twenty years.
But now Joseph Bruchac brings their stories to life for young adults through the riveting fictional tale of Ned Begay, a sixteen-year-old Navajo boy who becomes a code talker. His grueling journey is eye-opening and inspiring. This deeply affecting novel honors all of those young men, like Ned, who dared to serve, and it honors the culture and language of the Navajo Indians.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Readers who choose the book for the attraction of Navajo code talking and the heat of battle will come away with more than they ever expected to find." —Booklist, starred review

"With its multicultural themes and well-told WWII history, this will appeal to a wide audience." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
 
"Bruchac's gentle prose presents a clear historical picture of young men in wartime, island hopping across the Pacific, waging war in the hells of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Iwo Jima. Nonsensational and accurate, Bruchac's tale is quietly inspiring..." —School Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780803729216
Publisher:
Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date:
03/28/2005
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
337,734
Product dimensions:
5.74(w) x 8.51(h) x 0.86(d)
Lexile:
910L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

NAVAJOS WANTED.

Grandchildren, you asked me about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of metal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak for many winters. It is the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war. There is much that I must remember to speak for this medal, to tell its story as it should be told. I must remember not only the great secret with which I was trusted, but also all that happened to me and those like me. That is a lot. But I think that I can do it well enough. After all, I was expected to remember, as were the other men trained with me. The lives of many men depended entirely on our memories.

OTHER BOOKS BY JOSEPH BRUCHAC

The Arrow Over the Door

Children of the Longhouse

Eagle’s Song

The Heart of a Chief

The Winter People

CODE TALKER

A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two

JOSEPH BRUCHAC

Listen, My Grandchildren

Grandchildren, you asked me about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of metal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak for many winters. It is the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war. There is much that I must remember to speak for this medal, to tell its story as it should be told. I must remember not only the great secret with which I was trusted, but also all that happened to me and those like me. That is a lot. But I think that I can do it well enough. After all, I was expected to remember, as were the other men trained with me. The lives of many men depended entirely on our memories.

Look here. The man you see riding a horse on the back of this medal was an Indian. He is also one of those raising that flag there behind him. I knew him when we were both young men. His name was Ira Hayes. He was a fine person, even though he was not one of our people, but Akimel O’odam, a Pima Indian. We both fought on a distant island far off in the Pacific Ocean. There was smoke all around us from the exploding shells, the snapping sound of Japanese .25 caliber rifles, the thumping of mortars, and the rattling of machine guns. We could hear the pitiful cries of wounded men, our own Marines and the enemy soldiers, too.

It was a terrible battle. But our men were determined as they struggled up that little mountain. On top of it is where Ira was photographed, raising the flag of Nihimá. I was not one of those who fought to the top of Mount Suribachi, but I had my own special part to play. I helped send the message about our success, about the brave deeds so many Marines did that day for Nihimá.

Nihimá, “Our Mother.” That is the Navajo word we chose to mean our country, this United States. It was a good name to use. When we Indians fought on those far-off islands, we always kept the thought in our minds that we were defending Our Mother, the sacred land that sustains us.

Nihimá is only one of the Navajo words we chose for places with bilagáanaa names. South America became Sha-de-ah-Nihimá, “Our Mother to the South.” Alaska we called Bee hai, “With Winter.” Because we knew that Britain is an island, we gave it the name of Tó tah, “Surrounded by Water.” When we did not know much about a place, we described something about the people there. So we named Germany Béésh bich’ahii, “Iron Hat,” and Japan was Bináá’ádaálts’ozí, “Slant-eyed.”

Sometimes we didn’t know much about either the country or the people there, but that did not stop us. We used our sense of humor and played with the English. The word we used for Spain was Dibé diniih, which means “Sheep Pain.”

But I am getting ahead of myself. I have not even explained to you yet why we made up such names. I have not told you why being able to speak our Navajo language, the same Navajo language they tried to beat out of me when I was a child, was so important during World War Two. It was because I was a Navajo code talker.

What was a code talker and what did we code talkers do? Why was the secret we shared so great that we could not tell even our families about it until long after the war ended?

You cannot weave a rug before you set up the loom. So I will go back to the beginning, pound the posts in the ground, and build the frame. I will start where my own story of words and warriors begins.

CHAPTER ONE

Sent Away

I was only six years old and I was worried. I sat behind our hogan, leaning against its familiar walls and looking up toward the mesa. I hoped I would see an eagle, for that would be a good sign. I also hoped I would not hear anyone call my name, for that would be a sign of something else entirely. But the eagle did not appear. Instead, my mother’s voice, not much louder than a whisper, broke the silence.

“Kii Yázhí, come. Your uncle is in the wagon.”

The moment I dreaded had arrived. I stood and looked toward the hills. I could run up there and hide. But I did not do so, for I had always obeyed my mother—whose love for me was as certain as the firmness of the sacred earth beneath my moccasins. However, I did drag my feet as I came out from behind our hogan to see what I knew I would see. There stood my tall, beautiful mother. Her thick black hair was tied up into a bun. She was dressed in her finest clothing—a new, silky blue blouse and a blue pleated skirt decorated with bands of gold ribbons. On her feet were soft calf-high moccasins, and she wore all her silver and turquoise jewelry. Her squash-blossom necklace, her bracelets, her concha belt, her earrings—I knew she had adorned herself with all of these things for me. She wanted me to have this image of her to keep in my mind, to be with me when I was far from home.

However, the thing I saw most clearly was what she held in her arms. It was a small bundle of my clothes tied in a blanket. My heart sank. I really was going to be sent away.

My mother motioned toward the door of our hogan and I went inside. My great-grandfather was waiting for me on his bed. He was too weak to walk and was so old that he had shrunk in size. He had never been a big man, but now he was almost as small as me. Great-grandfather took my hand in both of his.

“Be strong, Kii Yázhí,” he rasped, his voice as creaky as an old saddle. I stood up on my toes so that I could put my arms around his neck and then pressed my cheek against his leathery face. “Kii Yázhí,” he said again, patting my back. “Our dear little boy.”

I had always been small for my age. My father used to tease me about it, saying that when I was born he made my cradleboard out of the handle of a wooden spoon. My baby name was Awéé Yázhí. Little Baby. Little I was and little I stayed. I went from being Awéé Yázhí, Little Baby, to Kii Yázhí, Little Boy.

“You are small,” my grandfather said, as if he could hear what I was thinking. “But your heart is large. You will do your best.”

I nodded.

When I stepped outside, my mother bent down and embraced me much harder than my grandfather had hugged me. Then she stepped back to stand by the door of our hogan.

“Travel safely, my son,” Mother said. Her voice was so sad.

My father came up to me and put his broad, calloused hands on my shoulders. He, too, was wearing his best clothing and jewelry. Though he said nothing, I think Father was even sadder than my mother, so sad that words failed him. He was shorter than her, but he was very strong and always stood so straight that he seemed tall as a lodgepole pine to me. His eyes were moist as he lifted me up to the wagon seat and then nodded.

My uncle clucked to the horses and shook the reins. The wagon lurched forward. As I grabbed the wooden backboard to steady myself, I felt a splinter go into my finger from the rough wood, but I ignored the pain. Instead I pulled myself around to turn backward and wave to my parents. I kept waving even after we went around the sagebrush-covered hill and I could no longer see them waving back at me, my father with his back straight and his hand held high, my mother with one hand pressed to her lips while the other floated as gracefully as a butterfly. I did not know it, but it would be quite some time before I saw my home again.

The wheels of the wagon rattled over the ruts in the road. I waved and waved and kept waving. Finally my uncle gently touched me on the wrist. My uncle was the only one in our family who had ever been to the white man’s school. His words had helped convince his sister, my mother, to send me to that faraway place. Now he was taking me there, to Gallup, where the mission school was located.

“Kii Yázhí,” he said, “look ahead.”

I turned to look up at my uncle’s kind face. His features were sharp, as hard and craggy as the rocks, but his eyes were friendly and the little mustache he wore softened his mouth. I was frightened by the thought of being away from home for the first time in my life, but I was also trying to find courage. My uncle seemed to know that.

“Little Boy,” he said, “Sister’s first son, listen to me. You are not going to school for yourself. You are doing this for your family. To learn the ways of the bilagáanaa, the white people, is a good thing. Our Navajo language is sacred and beautiful. Yet all the laws of the United States, those laws that we now have to live by, they are in English.”

I nodded, trying to understand. It was not easy. Back then, school was such a new thing for our people. My parents and their parents before them had not gone to school to be taught by strangers. They had learned all they knew from their own relatives and from wise elders who knew many things, people who lived with us. People just like us.

My uncle sat quietly for a time, stroking his mustache with the little finger of his right hand. The wagon rattled along, the horses’ hooves clopped against the stones in the road. I waited, knowing that my uncle had not yet finished talking. When he stroked his mustache like that, it meant he was thinking and choosing his words with care. It was important not to rush when there was something worthwhile to say.

Then he sighed. “Ah,” he said, “your great-grandfather was your age when the Americans, led by Red Shirt, Kit Carson, made their final war against the Navajos. They wished either to kill us all or remove every Indian from this land. They did this because they did not know us. They did not really understand about the Mexicans.”

My uncle turned toward me to see if I understood his words. I politely looked down at my feet and nodded. I knew about the Mexicans. For many years, the Mexicans raided our camps and stole away our people. We were sold as slaves. So our warriors fought back. They raided the villages where our people were held as slaves, rescuing them and taking away livestock from those who attacked us.

“When the Americans came,” my uncle continued, “our people tried to be friends with them. But they did not listen to us. They listened to the Mexicans, who could speak their language and said that we were bad people. Instead of helping to free us from slavery, the Americans ordered all the Navajos to stop raiding the slave traders. Some of our bands signed papers and kept the promise not to raid. But each Navajo band had its own headmen. Not all of them signed such papers. So, when all of our people did not stop raiding, the Americans made war on all of the Navajos. They burned our crops, killed our livestock, and cut down our peach trees. They drove our people into exile. They sent us on the Long Walk.”

Again my uncle paused to stroke his mustache and again I nodded. I had heard stories about the Long Walk from my great-grandfather. The whole Navajo tribe was forced to walk hundreds of miles to a strange and faraway place the white men called Fort Sumner. Hundreds of our people died along the way and even more died there. The earth was salty and dry. Our corn crops failed year after year. Sometimes late winter storms swept in and men froze while they were trying to work the fields. Our people began to call that place Hwééldi, the place where only the wind could live. Our people had no houses, but lived in pits dug into the earth. Indians from other tribes attacked us. We were kept there as prisoners for four winters. Even though I was a little boy, I knew this history as well as my own name.

“Kii Yázhí,” my uncle said, his voice slow and serious as he spoke. “It was hard for our people to be so far away from home, but they did not give up. Our people never forgot our homeland between the four sacred mountains. Our people prayed. They did a special ceremony. Then the minds of the white men changed. Our people agreed never again to fight against the United States and they were allowed to go back home. But even though the white men allowed us to come home, we now had to live under their laws. We had to learn their ways. That is why some of us must go to their schools. We must be able to speak to them, tell them who we really are, reassure them that we will always be friends of the United States. That is why you must go to school: not for yourself, but for your family, for our people, for our sacred land.”

As my uncle spoke, I saw my great-grandfather’s face in my mind. There had been tears of love and pity in his eyes as I left our hogan. I knew now that he had been remembering what it was like when he had been forced to go far away from home. He had been praying life would not be as hard for me at school as it had been for him at Hwééldi.

My uncle dropped his hand onto my shoulder. “Can you do this?” he asked me.

“Yes, Uncle,” I said. “I will try hard to learn for our people and our land.”

We had reached the hill that marked the edge of our grazing lands. I had never gone beyond that hill before. As my uncle clucked again to the horses, I noticed the pain in my finger and saw the splinter still lodged in it. I carefully worked it free. The tip of that thin needle of wood was red with my blood. Before we went over the hill, I dropped it onto the brown earth. Although I had to go away, I could still leave a little of myself behind.

CHAPTER TWO

Boarding School

The boarding school was more than a hundred miles from my home, so our journey took us several days. We slept out under the silver moon and the bright stars. Each morning my uncle cooked food for us over the fire, usually mutton and beans. Those meals were so good and the time I spent with him was precious to me. I knew I was soon going to be away from all of my family. I shall never forget that journey.

However, what I remember most is the morning of my arrival at Rehoboth Mission. It did not begin well for me. As soon as my uncle reached the gate of the school, like all the other parents and relatives who had traveled far to bring their children there, he was told that he had to go. He patted me one final time on my shoulder, stroked his mustache with his other hand, and nodded slowly.

“You will remember,” he said.

He watched me walk through the gate before he climbed back up onto the seat of the wagon, lifted his reins, clucked to the horses, and drove off without looking back. He did not say good-bye. There is no word for good-bye in Navajo.

So I was left standing there, a sad little boy holding tight against my chest the thin blanket in which my few belongings were tied. But I was not alone. There were many other Navajo children standing there, just as uncertain as I was. Like me, those boys and girls were wearing their finest clothing. Their long black hair glistened from being brushed again and again by loving relatives. The newest deerskin moccasins they owned were on their feet. Like me, many of them wore family jewelry made of silver, inset with turquoise and agate and jet. Our necklaces and bracelets, belts and hair ornaments, were a sign of how much our families loved us, a way of reminding those who would now be caring for us how precious we were in the eyes of our relatives.

Suddenly, as if everyone had remembered their manners all at once, we began to introduce ourselves to each other as Navajos are always supposed to do. We said hello, spoke our names, told each other our clans and where we were from. As you know, our clan system teaches us how we were born and shows us how to grow. By knowing each other’s clan—the clan of the mother that we were born to, the clan of the father that we were born for—we can recognize our relatives.

“Yáát’eeh,” a tall Navajo boy with a red headband said to me. “Hello. I am Many Horses. I am born to Bitter Water Clan and born for Towering House. My birthplace is just west of Chinle below the hills there to the west.”

Hearing his polite words made me feel less sad and I answered him slowly and carefully. “Yáát’eeh. I am Kii Yázhí. I was born for Mud Clan and born to Towering House. My birth place is over near Grants. I am the son of Gray Mustache.”

A round-faced girl wearing a silky shawl stepped closer to me and bowed her head. “Hello, my relative,” she said. “I am Dawn Girl. I, too, was born to Mud Clan. I am born for Corn Clan.”

It was not always easy for me to understand what those other boys and girls were saying. Even though we all spoke in Navajo, we had come from many distant parts of Dinetah. In those days, our language was not spoken the same everywhere by every group of Navajos. But, despite the fact that some of those other children spoke our sacred language differently, what we were doing made me feel happier and more peaceful. We were doing things as our elders had taught us. We were putting ourselves in balance.

Suddenly a huge white man with a red face appeared on the porch above us.

“Be quiet!” he roared at us in English.

Even though most of us could not understand the words he shouted, we all stopped talking. For a moment, before we remembered it is impolite to stare, we all looked up at him. Many of us had seen white people before, when we went to the trading posts with our elders. Almost every trading post was run by white men. Most of them also had their wives and families with them. Because there were no other kids around, those bilagáanaa boys and girls often played with the Navajo children. Some of those white traders’ children even learned to speak Navajo pretty well—at least much better than their parents.

It is not easy for other people, even other Indians, to learn to speak Navajo properly. The traders always tried to use a little Navajo, but they knew very few words. Sometimes they thought they were saying one thing when they were saying something quite different. I liked to hear the funny way the trader at our post tried to talk Navajo. But I kept a straight face because it would have been rude to laugh at a grown-up, even a grown-up bilagáanaa who had just said that all sheep above the age of six should be in school.

However, even though most of us had seen white men before, none of us had ever seen one like that red-faced white man who yelled at us on my first day at the boarding school. His skin was so red that it seemed to be burning. His hair was also that same fiery color. Moreover, his hair was not just on top of his head—where thick hair is supposed to be. It was all over his face. Among Navajos, some men may allow a little hair to grow on their upper lip—just as my uncle and my father did. But this red man had as much hair on his face as an animal. It was on his cheeks, his chin, his neck. Thick red hair even grew out of his ears. He pointed his finger and yelped more words that none of us understood.

“Is that a man speaking or is it a dog?” one of the boys next to me whispered in Navajo.

He wasn’t joking. It was a serious question. The huge white man’s angry shouts did sound like the barking of a dog. We all put our heads down as that red-dog white man yelped and roared. Finally, he became silent. But he kept staring down at us, waiting for something. When none of us moved, but just stood there, politely looking down at the ground, he barked at us again even louder.

We did not realize that he was ordering us to lift up our faces. We could not understand that he was telling us we must look at him to pay attention. None of us yet had learned that white people expect you to look into their eyes—the way you stare at an enemy when you are about to attack. Among bilagáanaas, the only time children look down is when they are ashamed of something.

“What does he want?” a girl whispered in a frightened voice. “He seems angry enough to eat us.”

A dark-skinned man with a kind face walked up to stand beside the big, red white man. The red white man growled something at him and the dark-skinned man nodded. Then he turned to us.

Yáát’eeh, my dear children,” he said in Navajo in a comforting voice. “My name is Mr. Jacob Benally. I am born to Salt Clan and born for Arrow Clan.”

That was when all of us realized this dark-skinned man was Navajo. We had not even thought he was any kind of Indian at all before he spoke. It was not just because he was dressed like a white man, but because his hair was so short. He wore no hat and you could see that all his hair had been cut off close to his scalp. We had never seen a Navajo man with such short hair. Back then, all Navajo men were supposed to have long hair.

Realizing that this man, dressed like a white man, was a Navajo made us look around the school yard. We had already noticed there were many older boys and girls there, all in uniforms. We had thought they were bilagáanaa children. They were watching us silently. Now we looked at them differently, seeing that their emotionless faces looked Navajo. But none of them had come to introduce themselves.

Many Horses, the tall boy with the red headband, spoke up.

“My uncle,” he said to Mr. Jacob Benally, using the polite form of address to show he respected this man like a relative, “are those other children in bilagáanaa clothing also Navajos?”

“Yes, my nephew,” Mr. Jacob Benally said, “but I am sorry that I must now tell you something. Listen well. You are forbidden to speak Navajo. You must all speak in English or say nothing at all.”

All of us stood there in silence. Most of us did not know any words in English. Those who did know some English words were so shocked that they could not remember any of them. Finally, Mr. Jacob Benally helped us.

“Children,” he said in Navajo, “here is a word of greeting that you can say. Watch how I hold my mouth and then repeat it after me. Heh-low. Heh-low.”

All of us did as he said. We opened our mouths and made those two sounds. “Heh-low, heh-low, heh-low.”

We hoped that this kind Navajo man would stay with us and keep talking Navajo. His job as an interpreter, though, was for one day and one day only. After that he went back to working in the stables and speaking broken English.

The only way left to us was to speak English. Thinking back on it, years later, I see now that it was a good policy in one sense. In the weeks that followed, we learned English much more quickly because we could not use our native tongue. But I can never forget how sad it made me feel when I learned enough English to understand what the angry, red white man, whose name was Principal O’Sullivan, had to say about our sacred language and our whole Navajo culture.

“Navajo is no good, of no use at all!” Principal O’Sullivan shouted at us every day. “Only English will help you get ahead in this world!”

Although the teachers at the school spoke in quieter tones than our principal, they all said the same. It was no good to speak Navajo or be Navajo. Everything about us that was Indian had to be forgotten.

CHAPTER THREE

To Be Forgotten

They took away our hair.

“My children,” Mr. John Benally said, after teaching us how to say hello in English, “I am sorry, but you must go now into this room.”

We did as he asked. One by one we were herded into a little shed where three tall, uniformed Navajo boys, whose hair was as short as Mr. John Benally’s, were waiting.

I should explain, grandchildren, that in those days, among our people, both men and women always kept their hair long. It was a sacred thing. Cutting your hair was believed to bring misfortune to you. But at mission school they had other beliefs.

I was the first one in line. Two of the uniformed boys took me by my arms, one on each side, and pulled me over to a chair.

“What are you doing?” I said in Navajo, just loud enough so that they could hear. But they did not answer me.

Instead, they pushed me down into that hard wooden chair and held me firmly—as if I were a sheep about to be sheared. Then another boy with a big pair of scissors chopped off my hair. He did it so quickly that it was over almost before I knew it. Another stunned child was being led in, and shoved into that chair even before I was out the door.

Both boys and girls had their hair cut. The only difference was that the hair of the girls was left a little longer than the boys. But I could see from the looks on their faces that losing most of their beautiful hair made those girls feel the same way I felt. Naked and ashamed.

Not only our hair was stripped away. After being shorn, we were led into two separate buildings, one for the boys and another for the girls. Once we were inside, we were made to take off all our fine clothing and our jewelry. We never saw those clothes or jewels again. Years later I learned that our squash-blossom necklaces and turquoise bracelets, earrings and hair ornaments and silver belts, were sold to white men and women.

In exchange for my clothing and jewelry, I was issued a military-style uniform made of cloth that was rough and itchy, and a stiff cap that was shoved down onto my head. The uniform and cap were too big for me, so big that my cap came down over my eyes. That made no difference to the older students who were handing out our new clothing. Once I was dressed I was pushed out onto the school yard. There, we new students were formed into a line and made to stand at attention, with the boys on one side of the yard and the girls, who were now wearing long brown dresses, aprons, and head coverings, on the other.

It was so strange. Where only a few moments before, there had been a colorful crowd of Navajo children, each one different from the other, now we all looked just the same. In our drab uniforms, the only difference between us boys was our size. Of course, I was the smallest one. I remember thinking that they had removed from us everything that we owned. But I was wrong. There was still one more thing to be taken.

We were led one by one to stand in front of a skinny white man with yellow hair who was sitting at a desk. A white board with curved black marks on it was propped up on that desk. None of us could read English, but I learned later that those curving marks that twisted like worms were the letters of the man’s name: Mr. Reamer. I also learned later that he always did the job he was about to do with us new students because he had convinced himself that he understood our language.

Mr. John Benally stood close to help with translating as Mr. Reamer asked each child the name of his or her father. That translation would help decide each student’s new last name in English. For example, one of the boys in our group said he was the son of Bilíí daalbáhí, “One who Has Roan Horses.” He became John Roanhorse. Mr. Reamer seemed very fond of the name John and gave it to lots of boys. Also, if he did not like the way someone’s last name sounded in English when it was translated from Navajo, he would just choose another last name and give it to that boy or girl.

We did not know it at the time, but some of the last names we got were the names of famous dead white men. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and so on. That was shocking to me when I discovered it later. Among our people no one is ever deliberately given the name of someone who has died.

When it came to be my turn I stood at attention in front of the desk. The skinny, yellow-haired white man said something to me. What he said sounded very strange. It did not sound like any language I had ever heard before, not even the English that everyone around us was now speaking. Once again the white man made those unpleasant noises. He sounded like someone trying to speak when his mouth is full of food.

“He thinks he is talking Navajo,” Mr. John Benally whispered into my ear. “He is trying to ask you the name of your father.”

“Dágháatbáhi Biye’,” I said. “I am the son of the One with a Gray Mustache.”

“Huh,” said Mr. Reamer as he wrote something down on his paper. “Another Begay.”

Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"When WWII broke out, Navajos…were recruited by the Marine Corps to use their native language to create an unbreakable code….Telling his story to his grandchildren, Ned relates his experiences in school, military training, and across the Pacific….With its multicultural themes and well-told WWII history, this will appeal to a wide audience." Kirkus Reviews

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >